Karnataka: BJP's NRC Pitch, Congress' Ban Promise Brings Communalism in Focus

Congress's manifesto proposing right-wing outfit ban gives BJP the ground to leverage on its Hindutva politics.

6 min read
Karnataka: BJP's NRC Pitch, Congress' Ban Promise Brings Communalism in Focus
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“The best way for Muslims to respond to communal provocations is to not react emotionally,” says Moulana Dr Mohamed Maqsood Imran Rashadi, Chief Imam and Khateeb of Jamia Masjid in Bengaluru. “Rather, if there is a need for our community to protest, we should do so peacefully, legally, and with utmost patience and self-restraint. Doing so is in our own interest, and the larger interest of the nation.”

I met the Moulana, who speaks persuasively and fluently in English, Urdu, and Kannada, at his book-lined office with polling in the Assembly Elections in Karnataka only ten days away. The previous day, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party had released its manifesto in which it pledged to introduce the controversial National Register of Citizens (NRC) in the state, once again bringing to the fore an issue that had triggered nationwide protests in 2019. The BJP’s manifesto also promises to implement the Uniform Civil Code (UCC), another issue that large sections of the Muslim community strongly oppose.


Communal Plank To Push Majoritarian Agenda May Not Work

A few weeks earlier, the BJP government in the state led by Basavaraj Bommai, had decided to scrap the four per cent reservation for Muslims in government jobs and educational institutions. The party expected the Muslim community to react aggressively to these issues, in the hope that this would further help widen communal polarisation and consolidate its Hindu vote bank in the state.

Muslims, however, are not reacting as per the BJP’s expectations. A major reason for this is the sound leadership provided by the likes of Dr Rashadi. Quoting a verse from the Holy Quran, he told me, “If you show sabr (patience) in all your sufferings, then the patient ones will receive rewards for their good deeds.” He gave an example.


At the height of the protests against the NRC and the CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act) in 2019, Muslim groups in Bengaluru decided to organise a march. The police apprehended trouble. “The then police commissioner asked me to tell the organisers to call off the march,” Dr Rashadi recalls. “I told him not to worry. I assured him that it would be my responsibility to ensure that nothing untoward happened. The march, despite huge participation, was completely peaceful. The next day, the commissioner came to our mosque to thank and congratulate us.”

As the BJP’s manifesto indicates, the party looks determined to introduce NRC in all the states, and not just in the Northeast. Ahead of the 2024 parliamentary elections, it hopes that the Muslim community would launch agitations around the country on the lines of the Shaheen Bagh sit-in in the national capital.

NRC in Karnataka: Response From the Muslim Community

The combination of CAA and NRC will permit any non-Muslim who has been left out of the register to simply claim they are “refugees” and get citizenship. In contrast, Muslims fear that the state machinery could use NRC as a tool to harass them by demanding documents to prove their ancestry. Muslims in Karnataka, too, have this apprehension.

Nevertheless, if there is one noticeable feature of the poll scene in Karnataka, it is that the Muslim community, which accounts for 13 per cent of the state’s population, is completely silent. As a result, the BJP leaders were unable to raise emotive issues like the Hijab Ban, which had raised the communal temperature in the state last year.

Facing strong anti-incumbency, and also due to fissures in its own ranks caused by the denial of tickets to some prominent Lingayat leaders like former Chief Minister Jagdish Shettar and Deputy Chief Minister Laxman Savadi, BJP leaders were sounding clueless in their campaign.

On their part, Congress leaders, including Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi, had done well to steer clear of communal issues in their campaign speeches. Instead, their chief focus was on the failures of the Bommai government, especially its widespread reputation as a “40% commission Sarkar”. The high levels of corruption in every wing of the government have made it extremely unpopular, exposing the hollowness of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s pre-2014 promise of ‘Na Khaoonga, Na Khane Doonga’ (I shall not tolerate corruption).


Congress’s Campaign: Hits & Misses

The Congress campaign also smartly kept the spotlight on its own attractive promises to the common people — 200 units of free power to all households; 10 kg of rice free to every member of BPL household; ₹2,000 monthly assistance to the woman head of every family; ₹3,000 every month for graduate youth and ₹1,500 for diploma holders (both in the age group of 18-25) for two years; and free travel for women in public transport buses.

The Congress did stumble when its National President Mallikarjun Kharge, called Modi “visha sarpa” — a poisonous snake. Facing a severe backlash, he quickly apologised. In public perception, the damage to the Congress was partly offset when a prominent BJP leader, Basangouda Yatnal, calling Sonia Gandhi “visha kanya” — a poisonous woman.

Despite this unforced blunder, the Congress campaign had clearly put the BJP on the back foot. Even though the BJP pooh-poohed the Congress promises as freebies (“revadi”, as Modi has described them), it too was forced to include similar promises in its own manifesto — three free cooking gas cylinders to all BPL families annually; half litre Nandini milk to them every day, and so on.

On the whole, the BJP was struggling and the Congress was looking confident. Most pre-poll surveys had been showing the Congress significantly ahead of the BJP, some even projecting a clear majority for the party in the 224-seat assembly.


Ban Controversy & “Anti-Hindu” Peg

When all this was going well, the Congress scored a self-goal in the last leg of the campaign. Releasing its own election manifesto on 2 May, a day after the BJP did so, it proposed to ban Bajrang Dal, the youth wing of the RSS-affiliated Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), equating it with the Islamic outfit Popular Front of India (PFI), which is already banned. This came like a much-needed oxygen supply to the BJP which had been gasping for breath. It quickly latched on to this issue to amplify its oft-repeated allegation that the Congress is an “anti-Hindu” party.

Prime Minister Modi, who never loses an opportunity to gain electoral mileage from communal issues, himself led the attack. Addressing a rally in the state, he said, “Earlier the Congress locked up Lord Ram in Ayodhya, and now they want to lock up those who chant ‘Jai Bajrang Bali’. It is a misfortune of this country that the Congress had a problem with "Shri Ram" and now it has a problem with the people who worship Hanuman, who is Shri Ram’s greatest bhakt.” Stating that “I have come to the land of Lord Hanuman”, Modi then asked the crowd to chant “Jai Bajrang Bali”, and the roar that went out was thunderous.

How will the Congress promise to ban the Bajrang Dal likely pan out in the remaining one week of the campaign? In Hubli, the second-largest city in Karnataka, a Congress supporter told me: “In recent years, the Bajrang Dal’s young foot soldiers have grown in numbers in most parts of Karnataka. They indulge in a lot of mischievous activities. But many of them were also unhappy with the BJP due to several factors, including local level rivalries within the party. For example, in coastal Karnataka, which is a stronghold of the Sangh Parivar, some hardcore Hindutva leaders have openly rebelled against BJP leaders and are even campaigning against the party’s candidates. Now that our party has promised to ban the Bajrang Dal, its entire Army will galvanise itself to campaign against us. This is sure to hurt us.”


Already the BJP has reportedly begun a whisper campaign in the villages of Karnataka that the Congress if it came to power, would ban Hindus from going to Hanuman temples. There are Hanuman temples in practically every village in the state. A part of the reason for this is that Anjaneya, another name for Hanuman, is regarded as a Dravidian god. BJP always wanted to make this a Hindu vs Muslim issue. Now Congress has given it an opportunity, which was wholly unnecessary and is potentially damaging.

No one can predict how costly this self-goal could be for the Congress in Karnataka. We would only know on the counting day on 13 May. However, most Congress leaders and political analysts I met in Bengaluru (before the release of the party’s poll manifesto) had opined that Modi’s campaign in the last ten days of the campaign could benefit the BJP. And now that the Congress has given him a major Hindutva issue on a platter, he and his followers will surely spin it to their party’s greatest advantage.

(Sudheendra Kulkarni served as an aide to former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and is the founder of the Forum for a New South Asia – Powered by India-Pakistan-China Cooperation. His Twitter handle is @SudheenKulkarni and he welcomes comments at

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